Malta – On the surface, all looks well for the 41st Rolex Middle Sea Race, scheduled to start on 17 October 2020 from Valletta’s Grand Harbour. Despite the ongoing disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, 79 boats representing 21 countries are currently registered. A diverse and attractive fleet given the circumstances, with some fascinating entries. The Royal Malta Yacht Club (RMYC) continues to take nothing for granted. The shifting global picture still presents a huge hurdle before the Saluting Battery cannons signal the start of the race.
In terms of preparations, the RMYC is well advanced. The COVID-19 Task Force led by former-flag officer Mark Vella is drawing expertise from a number of individuals including, importantly, some with front-line experience of managing the public health response in Malta. “It remains a complex situation,” says Vella. “We continue to walk through every aspect of the event, analysing and assessing each risk point, and working up the appropriate protocols and operating procedures.”The RMYC has added a COVID-19 page to the RMSR website where it gives detail about access to the clubhouse, the registration process, facilities and restrictions. “We have already taken steps to limit the number of people using the Club in the lead up to the race and members are being very understanding,” explains Vella. “Once we get to the week before the start, access will be strictly by appointment-only whether it is registration for the race or lunch at the restaurant. We have made provision to control the entrance to the building and the waterfront area with security personnel checking individuals have a valid reason for entry and taking their temperature. The wearing of face masks will be mandatory and there are numerous hand-sanitiser stations. The effort to reduce risk is thorough and with the safety of competing crews foremost in our mind.”Principal Race Officer Peter Dimech is another member of the Task Force with particular responsibility for the racing. “Delivering the race in a safe, sensible and sensitive manner is my priority,” advises Dimech. “At a competitor level, we have taken a number of steps. For example, we have moved as much of the registration process online as we can and we will forgo the usual personal boat inspection, accepting a formal declaration from the Person in Charge that their boat is compliant.” Given so much of the race is conducted in Italian waters, Dimech is regularly in contact with the Italian authorities ahead of the race. This year requires an even more detailed approach. “We are taking all the normal steps including close contact with the Italian Embassy in Malta and relevant maritime bodies,” adds Dimech. “With the pandemic in mind, we are also taking steps to establish an official procedure for boats that retire and need to seek shelter in a Sicilian port.”
Otherwise, in many respects, it is business as usual. The Sailing Instructions are in the final stages of preparation and the army of volunteers required to assist with the start procedures, race control and the finish line is in hand. For the participants too, there are the normal worries ahead of the start, as well as the problems posed by COVID-19.Last year’s winners, the Podesta siblings from Malta have entered again with their First 45 Elusive 2. “It is just one of those things,” says Maya. “The race is on all our calendars, so even before we won last year we knew we’d be on the start line again this year. It is just part of our lives.” Maya is glad to have the support of her brothers Aaron and Christoph in preparing Elusive 2. In her day job as a doctor, Maya is a Consultant at the Office of the Superintendence of Public Health in Malta, and fully occupied with government’s response to the pandemic. Naturally, she is also a key member of the RMYC COVID Task Force with particular responsibility for interpreting the latest regulations and guidance and advising on the requirements for foreign crews.Christoph Podesta confirms that the preparatory work is underway to ensure Elusive 2 is in the best possible shape for the race. “We started our effort about a month and a half ago as soon as the COVID situation became a bit clearer,” comments Christoph. “This year we are trying make the boat a little lighter, while refining systems and equipment to make sure they are fully reliable and nothing will let us down, so we can push as hard as we want without any failures.” It has not been straight-forward, as he explains: “COVID has given us a few challenges. We all live in different households, so we need to be careful when working on the boat to practice social distancing and to wear masks.”
Antoine Rabaste, the owner of the 24 metre (80 foot) French multihull Ultim’Emotion 2 (ex-Prince de Bretagne), faces a different set of obstacles to be on the start line. Last year his then Ultim’Emotion 1 (ex-Gitana XI) capsized en route to the Mediterranean and was unable to race. This year Antoine is hoping that favourable conditions and a good crew, will get them to Malta and place them in good stead to compete against their immediate rivals the MOD 70 PowerPlay and Mana, along with the Multi70 Maserati all of which will be in the fight for multihull line honours.
“This is the third time of trying, “ advised Rabaste. “Three years ago the crew that I had organised quit one week before the race so we could not make it. Last year we were all ready to go, but unfortunately we capsized on our way to Malta. This year is our third time trying to participate, so let’s cross our fingers. We have a good crew with some experienced people. If conditions are right then we have a chance to do well in the race.” Antoine and Ultim’Emotion 2 have already proven their ability in 2020, winning line honours in the Cape2Rio Race as LoveWater under charter.
With the race just over three weeks away, everyone’s preparation is ramping up from the organisers to the crews. Just as Rabaste has his fingers tightly crossed, so do many others that the 2020 Rolex Middle Sea Race will go ahead without a hitch.